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systemd vs. init: Decoding the Linux boot process

Explore the intricacies of the Linux boot process through a detailed comparison of systemd and init. This article sheds light on their functionalities, differences in handling system startup, and the overall impact on system management, helping you grasp the essentials of Linux system administration.

by John Horan
systemd vs. init

As a passionate Linux user and an enthusiast in the world of operating systems, I’ve always been fascinated by the way Linux boots up. The boot process is like the opening act of an opera, setting the stage for the user’s experience. In this blog, I’ll dive into the nitty-gritty of the Linux boot process, focusing on two major systems: systemd and the traditional init.

These are not just mere programs; they are the backstage crew that set the stage for your Linux system’s performance and usability. Systemd, the modern maestro, offers a suite of sophisticated features and speedy boot-ups, catering to the demands of contemporary computing. In contrast, init, the traditionalist, sticks to its roots with a simple, script-based approach, appealing for its transparency and minimalism. As we unfold the layers of these two systems, you’ll discover how they define your Linux experience, influencing everything from boot times to system management.

Introduction to linux boot process

The boot process in Linux is a sequence of events that starts when the computer is powered on and ends when the system is fully operational and ready for user interaction. It involves various components like the BIOS/UEFI, bootloader, kernel, and the init system.

systemd vs. init

In the world of Linux, two primary init systems have been used: the traditional init (specifically, the System V or SysV init) and the more modern systemd. Let’s explore these two.

Init: the traditional approach

The init system, particularly SysV init, is the grandfather of Linux init systems. It’s known for its simplicity and straightforwardness.

Expanding on the traditional init approach, it’s important to delve a bit deeper to appreciate its functionality and historical significance in the Linux world. Let’s break down some of the essential aspects of init.

Init and its configuration files

The init system primarily reads its configuration from the /etc/inittab file. This file dictates how init behaves, including setting the default runlevel and defining actions to take when entering or leaving different runlevels.

Example: Viewing /etc/inittab

To view the contents of /etc/inittab, you can use the cat command:

cat /etc/inittab


l0:0:wait:/etc/rc.d/rc 0
l1:S1:wait:/etc/rc.d/rc 1

Each line here represents a different configuration or action for a specific runlevel or system event.

Script-based service management

In init, each service is typically managed by a script in /etc/init.d. These scripts are responsible for starting, stopping, and managing services.

Example: Managing a service

To restart a service like httpd using an init script, you would run:

/etc/init.d/httpd restart

Sequential startup process

One of the characteristics of init is the sequential startup process. Each script in the runlevel directory is executed in order. This method is straightforward but can lead to slower boot times compared to systemd.

Customizing and troubleshooting

Customizing and troubleshooting with init is more hands-on. You often need to edit scripts directly, which can be both a learning opportunity and a challenge, especially for new users.

Example: Editing a startup script

If you wanted to edit the startup script for httpd, you would manually edit the script found in /etc/init.d/httpd using a text editor like nano or vim.

The charm of init

Despite its age, there’s a certain charm to the init system. Its simplicity and transparency make it appealing for those who prefer a more traditional Unix-like approach. It’s less about automation and more about understanding each step of the process.

Modern relevance

While many modern distributions have shifted to systemd, init still holds its ground, especially in lighter distributions or in environments where system resources are scarce. It’s also a great learning tool for those interested in the history and evolution of Linux.

How init works

  • Bootloader handover: After the bootloader (like GRUB) loads the kernel, it hands over control to init.
  • Runlevels: init uses runlevels, a set of modes like single-user mode, multi-user mode, etc., to define what services are started.
  • Scripts execution: It executes scripts located in /etc/rc.d or /etc/init.d based on the runlevel.

Example: Viewing runlevels

To view your current runlevel, you can use the runlevel command:



N 3

This output indicates that the system is in runlevel 3, which typically means a multi-user mode with networking.

Pros and cons of init

  • Pro: Simplicity and ease of understanding.
  • Con: Limited features and slower boot times due to sequential script execution.

Systemd: the modern approach

Introduced around 2010, systemd has become the default init system for many Linux distributions. It’s more than just an init system; it’s a suite of tools for a range of system management tasks.

Diving deeper into systemd, it’s clear that this modern init system brings a lot of innovation and efficiency to the boot process and system management in Linux. Let’s explore some more nuanced features and functionalities that make systemd stand out.

Systemd and its unit files

Systemd uses unit files for managing resources. These files are far more than simple startup scripts; they offer extensive configuration options, including dependencies, order of execution, and resource control.

Example: Creating a custom unit file

Imagine you want to create a simple service to run a script on boot. You would create a file like

Description=My custom script



This unit file defines a service that runs a script located at /usr/local/bin/myscript.sh.

Parallel execution and dependency management

One of the key advantages of systemd is its ability to start services in parallel. This feature, combined with intelligent dependency management, can significantly reduce boot times.

Systemctl: The control center

Systemctl is the central tool for managing systemd services. It allows you to start, stop, reload, enable, and disable services, among other functionalities.

Example: Enabling a service

To enable a service to start on boot, you would use:

systemctl enable myscript.service

Systemd targets

Instead of runlevels, systemd uses targets, which are more flexible and align with specific states of the system, like graphical mode, multi-user mode, and emergency mode.

Example: Changing targets

To switch to a graphical target, you would use:

systemctl isolate graphical.target

Advanced features

Systemd comes packed with advanced features like socket activation, timers (replacing cron jobs), and logging through journald, which centralizes and manages logs more efficiently.

Example: Checking logs

To check the logs for a service, you’d use journalctl:

journalctl -u sshd

This shows logs specific to the SSH daemon.

The convenience and controversy of systemd

Systemd is often praised for its efficiency and modern design, but it also has its critics who argue it goes against the Unix philosophy of “doing one thing and doing it well.” It’s more complex and can be daunting for new users.

How systemd works

  • Bootloader handover: Similar to init, after the kernel is loaded, control is passed to systemd.
  • Unit files: systemd uses unit files instead of scripts. These files are located in /etc/systemd/system and /lib/systemd/system.
  • Concurrent startup: Services can be started in parallel, leading to faster boot times.

Example: Checking a service status

To check the status of a service with systemd, use the systemctl command:

systemctl status sshd


● sshd.service - OpenSSH server daemon
   Loaded: loaded (/lib/systemd/system/sshd.service; enabled; vendor preset: enabled)
   Active: active (running) since Tue 2023-11-14 08:35:42 UTC; 1 day ago
 Main PID: 1234 (sshd)
    Tasks: 1 (limit: 4915)
   Memory: 3.2M
   CGroup: /system.slice/sshd.service
           └─1234 /usr/sbin/sshd -D

This shows that the SSH daemon is active and running.

Pros and cons of systemd

  • Pro: Increased efficiency with parallel service start-up and a unified management system.
  • Con: Complexity and larger footprint compared to init.

Choosing between systemd and init

As a personal preference, I lean towards systemd for modern systems due to its efficiency and robust feature set. However, for older hardware or for those who prefer simplicity, init might be more suitable. Let’s take a deeper dive.

When it comes to selecting between systemd and init for your Linux system, the decision hinges on several key factors. Both have their unique strengths and cater to different needs and preferences. Let’s explore these factors in more detail to help you make an informed choice.

System requirements and performance

  • systemd: It’s more resource-intensive than init. However, this trade-off comes with faster boot times and more efficient management of background services. Ideal for modern hardware where resources are not a major constraint.
  • init: Best suited for systems with limited resources. Its lightweight nature makes it a good choice for older hardware or minimalistic setups.

Ease of use and learning curve

  • systemd: With its all-encompassing approach, systemd can initially seem overwhelming. However, it provides more straightforward and powerful tools (systemctl, journalctl) which, once mastered, simplify many administrative tasks.
  • init: Offers a more hands-on approach. It’s simpler, but managing services involves directly editing scripts. This could be a hurdle for newcomers but a valuable learning experience for those looking to understand Linux from the ground up.

Flexibility and control

  • systemd: Offers extensive features and allows for complex configurations. Its unit files are more versatile than traditional scripts, offering better control over how services are managed.
  • init: While less feature-rich, it provides a more transparent and straightforward service management process. This can be appealing for those who prefer total control over their system without the additional layers of abstraction systemd introduces.

Compatibility and community support

  • systemd: Being the default for most modern Linux distributions, it has extensive community support and documentation. This makes troubleshooting and learning easier.
  • init: While less common in new distributions, it still has a loyal following. There’s a wealth of historical knowledge and resources available, which are invaluable for learning the fundamentals of Linux.

Personal preference and philosophy

  • systemd: If you prefer a system that is more standardized across different distributions and offers modern features, systemd is the way to go.
  • init: For those who are drawn to the Unix philosophy of simplicity or have a preference for classic Linux systems, init could be more appealing.

Specific use cases

  • Embedded systems: init is often preferred due to its minimalistic nature.
  • Servers and New-age applications: systemd, with its advanced features and better service management, is generally more suitable.

My personal take

As an individual who values both efficiency and the learning aspect of Linux, I find myself gravitating towards systemd for everyday use, especially on modern hardware. Its advanced features and efficient management capabilities make it a powerful tool for contemporary computing needs. However, for educational purposes or when working on older systems, I appreciate the simplicity and transparency of init.

Comparative Overview: Systemd vs. Init

This table provides a quick reference to understand the fundamental differences between systemd and init. Your choice between the two should consider your specific needs, the nature of your hardware, and your personal preference for system management style.

Systemd Init (SysV init)
Faster Boot Times
Thanks to parallel service startup and better dependency management, systemd often results in quicker boot times.
Sequential Service StartupServices start one after the other, which can be slower but is simpler to understand.
Complex, But Powerful Configuration
Unit files offer extensive configuration options and flexibility.
Simple Script-Based Configuration
Service management is done through straightforward scripts in /etc/init.d.
Resource Intensive
Tends to use more resources due to its extensive features.
Less resource-intensive, making it suitable for older hardware or systems with limited resources.
Centralized Management
Offers tools like systemctl and journalctl for managing services and logs.
Direct Management
Requires manual editing of scripts and files for service management.
Widespread Adoption
The default in most modern Linux distributions, with extensive community support.
Niche but Valuable
Less common in new distributions but highly valued in specific scenarios like education or minimalistic setups.
Advanced Features
Includes features like socket activation, timers, and better logging.
Simplicity and Transparency
Lacks advanced features but offers a clear and straightforward approach.
Better for Modern Applications
Suited for complex, modern systems with its advanced capabilities.
Great for Learning and Old Hardware
Ideal for educational purposes and running on older or resource-constrained systems.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Systemd and Init

1. What is the main difference between systemd and init?

Answer: The main difference lies in their design and functionality. systemd is a newer system that offers faster boot times, parallel service startup, and advanced features like system state snapshots and service dependency management. init (particularly SysV init), on the other hand, is older and follows a simpler, sequential approach to service startup.

2. Can I switch from systemd to init, or vice versa?

Answer: Yes, you can switch between the two, but it’s a complex process that involves changing the system’s fundamental initialization scripts and service management tools. It’s typically done by advanced users and is not recommended on systems where stability is crucial.

3. Is systemd better than init?

Answer: “Better” is subjective and depends on your needs. systemd is more efficient and has more features, making it suitable for modern, complex systems. init is simpler and uses fewer resources, making it ideal for older hardware or for users who prefer a traditional approach.

4. Why do some Linux users prefer init over systemd?

Answer: Some users prefer init due to its simplicity, transparency, and adherence to the Unix philosophy of doing one thing and doing it well. It’s also seen as easier to troubleshoot and manage manually.

5. Do all Linux distributions use systemd now?

Answer: No, not all. While many mainstream distributions have adopted systemd, there are still distributions that use init or other init systems, especially those designed for minimalism or specific use cases.

6. How do I check if my system is using systemd or init?

Answer: You can check by running ps -p 1 in the terminal. If the output shows systemd, your system is using systemd. If it shows init, then your system uses the init system.

7. Are there any security concerns with systemd?

Answer: Like any software, systemd has had its share of security concerns and vulnerabilities, but they are typically addressed promptly by the community. Some critics argue that its complexity could potentially introduce more security risks compared to the simpler init system.

8. Can I use systemd features on an init-based system?

Answer: Some features unique to systemd, like socket activation or snapshot management, are not available on init-based systems. However, basic service management can be conducted similarly using scripts.

9. Is it necessary to learn init if my system uses systemd?

Answer: While not necessary, understanding init can provide a deeper insight into Linux’s history and foundational concepts, which can be beneficial for those looking to deepen their Linux expertise.

10. Will init eventually become obsolete?

Answer: While systemd has become the standard in many distributions, init is unlikely to become completely obsolete in the near future. It remains relevant for specific use cases and is an integral part of Linux history and education.


Our exploration into the Linux boot processes of systemd and init unveils a fascinating aspect of Linux system management, reflecting a blend of modern efficiency and traditional simplicity. Systemd, with its advanced management features, faster boot times, and comprehensive tools, is well-suited for contemporary systems and users seeking sophisticated functionalities. Conversely, init upholds the Unix philosophy of simplicity, offering a straightforward, script-based approach ideal for those on older hardware or delving into Linux for educational purposes.

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1 comment

amgadelsaiegh November 21, 2023 - 1:29 PM

well written article, thank you.


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